Boy Kings: Katherine Losse's account of the Facebook frat houseJuly 14, 2012 @ 10:26 am (Updated: 10:43 am - 7/17/12 )
Katherine Losse describes the beginnings of social media giant Facebook from the beginning - when it was a wild start up frat house. (Photo: Free Press)
By Libby Denkmann
Katherine Losse was Facebook employee number 51 when she was hired as a customer service representative in 2005. She was also one of the first women breaking into what seemed lilke a boys club: a Palo Alto office filled with hyper-smart, ambitious, exclusively male engineers who were focused on world domination. That's the subject of her new book, Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network.
"I'd heard about these things called startups and you know, that some guys would gather in a room and build something that would really change the world," says Katherine, "Walking in there it actually had that vibe, like I felt there was something really exciting happening and I really felt like we could all bond together around the fact that we were doing something that I knew was going to be really huge."
Working at Facebook during those days was way more fun than your job. Employees enjoyed vacation rentals in Tahoe, a summer house to sit poolside and work on laptops, weekend trips to Las Vegas for lavish birthday bashes - it sounded like an endless booze-soaked party.
"People are still surprised by the growth, but I think that people who have been there from the early days, we always knew this was going to happen. Like as long as we played the cards right, Facebook would keep growing," says Katherine.
But Losse says there were disadvantages to the frat- house culture at Facebook.
"Women were definitely in a different position than men and we had to put up with some things that I think guys just weren't aware of. One time, some guys were making an application that would judge women's appearances. And, to me, that was disturbing. Like, I wouldn't want to be a part of that."
Losse describes what happened when a female Facebook employee was told in the cafeteria that her male co-worker wanted to bite her posterior.
"When she complained, no one seemed to understand why that was so bad. It was even brought up in a meeting, like 'oh, you shouldn't do this, but it's not that serious,'" says Katherine, "So I went to Mark and said 'you know, I really think we should treat these kinds of issues seriously in the office because everyone should feel comfortable.'"
For CEO Mark Zuckerberg's birthday female employees were all asked to wear t-shirts with his face on them. Katherine called in sick that day.
"Obviously a big part of our mission, is just connecting all of these different people in the world," said Mark Zuckerberg in a statement.
For Zuckerberg, the mantra was "move fast and break things." Sexual politics just weren't on his radar.
"He believed in revolution, and he would sort of jokingly say 'domination' in the early days - and he doesn't say that anymore. It was just part of this boyish game, like we're going to really do big things," says Katherine.
But a few years after Losse started with Facebook, they head-hunted a major addition to their executive team.
"And the problem is this: women are not making it to the top of any profession anywhere in the world," said Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg of women professionals.
Sheryl Sandberg was recruited in 2008 to become Facebook's Chief Operating Officer. Losse said Sandberg immediately took an interest in the plight of women at Facebook.
"She met with all the women in engineering and she said 'I want to hear about everything and I'm going to do sort of house cleaning' - and that's what she did," says Katherine.
Quietly, Sandberg began to clean up the Mad Men power imbalance at the social media giant. An engineering director who had been known to proposition female employees for threesomes was demoted. Another aggressive engineer was reassigned.
Losse says the shift from a male-dominated workplace isn't just happening at Facebook. Across silicon valley, many women are taking more prominent roles.
"Now you have social media, which is a form of technology that many women use - in fact, the majority is used by women. So it wouldn't make any sense at this point in time to have a company making social media that had no women in high positions or distributed evenly throughout the company. Tech is a place where women should be more involved and more women are going to be going and doing computer science and programming so that this problem naturally won't exist so much in the future," says Katherine.
Now that Facebook is becoming all grown up - thousands of employees, sales offices around the world, a much publicized IPO that made its earlier employees fabulously wealthy - has the frat-house mentality changed?
A 2011 survey showed that a third of Facebook's employees were women. That's a a higher level of diversity than Microsoft, Google, Apple, or Amazon. In June, Sheryl Sandberg became the first woman on Facebook's board of directors. And last week, Facebook Seattle installed a hot tub in their office.
Maybe the party's just getting started.
Listen to Libby's story:
Katherine Losse's new book The Boy Kings: A Journey into the Heart of the Social Network is available in bookstores everywhere.
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